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Sign language: LA graffiti artist creates hand-painted signs for local commerce

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In neighborhoods like Echo Park, Inglewood and Eagle Rock, hand painted signs are everywhere. But who paints them, how do they get there and are they even legal?

In neighborhoods like Echo Park, Inglewood and Eagle Rock you can't miss them: hand-painted signs are everywhere They advertise carnicerias, discount stores, going out of business sales. But who paints them, how do they get there and are they even legal?

KPCC's Kevin Ferguson spent time with one of Highland Park's most prolific sign artists.

Along Figueroa Street, between Avenues 55 and 56, there's a Bank of America, a parking lot, and a giant brick wall. Until a few months ago it was like a lot of brick walls in LA: covered from top to bottom with coats of paint, and a couple for rent signs.

Then it changed.

I noticed it when I was walking to work: A spray painted scene with two enormous faces, both wearing sunglasses with the ocean in the background. On the right a woman — she could be a model —brushing her hair back with an improbably thin arm, staring at the sky. Next to her, a man stares into the foreground, presumably looking at the traffic on Figueroa.

To the left, a hand painted sign advertising Triumph Optical, which takes up the office on the second floor. It's a small place of business: Triumph sells prescription eyeglasses, sunglasses, accessories, mostly wholesale.

Michael Kosman, the owner, said he ran the business mostly under the radar for some time, but that soon changed.

"We've discovered that people appreciate our retail abilities as well," he said. So, Kosman decided to start advertising.

He found a business card for Alza Signs, a Northeast L.A. sign company. Kosman called Edward Mompeller, Alza's owner and artist, "And to my surprise he said he would do it that night and it would only take him a few hours," said Kosman. "I didn't comparison shop, I just trusted him that he would a do a job, the worst that could happen is I could paint it over "

When Kosman came in the next morning, he loved the final product. His employees agreed, and it hasn't been bad for his bottom line. "So far a few customers have come in and have purchased eyewear from us because of the mural," said Kosman.

Mompeller — the man behind Alza Signs — is a longtime resident of Highland Park. If you travel around Highland Park, Eagle Rock, or Glassell Park you'll find his work almost everywhere.

Mompeller has a long history with painting walls, one that goes back to the early '80s. Only he wasn't paid to do it, he said he was a crucial part of L.A.'s early graffiti art scene. He went commercial later on.

"In '85 I had no idea that I was actually doing artwork for businesses. But I was," said Mompeller.

On Avenue 50 and Figueroa, Mompeller’s waving red chili pepper adorns the wall of Chico's restaurant. Down the street, Mompeller painted Mario, the Nintendo character, jumping over the entrance a nearby market.

Mompeller has also tried to nurture young graffiti artists. Over the years he worked with property owners in northeast LA to create “free zones” — areas where artists can create murals without permission. Also, and he didn't mention this in our interview, Mompeller is an amazing dancer.

Search Youtube for "Playboy Eddie" — that's his alias — and you'll find dozens of videos of him popping and locking. In this clip, Mompeller, wearing all white, goes against the legendary Popin' Pete:

On The Job

I met up with Mompeller for a job late on Monday night back outside of Michael Kosman's business, Triumph Optical

This time, Kosman has asked him to cover the entire wall. It's a big job, so Mompeller brought help. Julian, who goes by the name Naive, is a 20-year-old street artist and student. It's his first job.

Tonight's project has a bunch of different elements: on top of the sunbathing models already on the wall, they're adding a portrait of the model, reasons why sunglasses can be good for your eyes, an optometrist, and more. They brought ladders, paint, and plenty of spray cans.

More than just a quick and affordable service for businesses owners, companies like Mompeller's offer security. Alza Signs also promises that in the event a mural ends up defaced with someone else's graffiti, they'll fix it right away.

Mompeller is able to make that guarantee in part because he almost never has to act on it. Most taggers wouldn’t think of defacing the work of someone who's been on the scene that long.

This whole graffiti-art-as-advertising thing falls into a squishy legal area — signs like this technically aren't permitted, but L.A. police don't make it a priority to enforce the ban.

At the site of the mural a couple of hours go by, they're running a little behind, and they have an outline for the model and a solid background, but they've got tons of work to do. And I'm kind of a distraction.

"Not to be pushing on this interview, but to tell you the truth. When I was doing these other faces, I didn't get started until like four in the morning, I didn't get out until like six. So I can't have that happen tonight, cause I have another job to do," Mompeller told me.

"So you can't have me talking to you?" I ask.

Laughing, Mompeller replies: "Not the whole night, no."

So around 1 a.m., I head home. Mompeller and his assistant ended up working on the mural until dawn. The final product looks great, at least in my opinion: the portrait of the model stretches maybe 12 feet.

The writing? Clear and legible. The optometrist character on the left has "KPCC" written on his shirt. Like a lot of work by Alza signs: the mural looks professional, but not slick. And definitely not sterile.

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